UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN River Falls
Members of the UW-River Falls College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences won multiple team and individual awards recently at the North American Colleges and Teachers of Agriculture (NACTA) Student Judging Contest in Modesto, Calif., April 12-15. Students also placed first in the North American Intercollegiate Dairy Challenge in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. UWRF photo.
May 11, 2023 – Coryn Davidson and her three teammates on the University of Wisconsin-River Falls Ag Business Team arrived at a national competition in Modesto, Calif., with high hopes.
They worked diligently in the months leading up to the North American Colleges and Teachers of Agriculture (NACTA) Student Judging Contest, held April 12-15, learning as much as they could to prepare for the contest’s exam covering several subjects in agricultural economics. Davidson, of River Falls, and her teammates – Grant Buwalda, a senior from Waupun; Casey Denk, a junior from Mondovi; and Joe Schlies, a senior from Denmark, all agricultural business majors – were matched against other four-year universities, many with much higher enrollments than UWRF.
When contest scores were announced, UWRF was not only named the winner, but the four top individual scores in the event belonged to team members. Buwalda took first place, and Schlies, Denk, and Davidson won second, third, and fourth place, respectively. After event results were announced, team members felt relief and pure joy.
“I will never forget riding in the car, windows down, ribbons high, and music turned up loud as we rode home with our victory,” Davidson recalled.
The Ag Business Team wasn’t the only UWRF team that is part of the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences (CAFES) celebrating first-place honors at recent national competitions. A soil judging team competing in the NACTA event also took first in both the team and individual contests. UWRF also took top national honors on April 1 at the annual North American Intercollegiate Dairy Challenge event in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
In addition, the UWRF Knowledge Bowl Team took second place at the NACTA event after winning last year. The UWRF Crop Judging Team placed sixth at the NACTA event as well.
High-level performances at national competitions are nothing new for CAFES teams. UWRF has a reputation for excelling at the national level, often topping the scores of larger universities and Ivy League schools.
Holly Dolliver, soil science and geology professor and chair of the Plant and Earth Science Department, remembers her days as an undergrad at UWRF and the school’s tradition of CAFES teams performing at high levels nationally. She has coached the Soils Judging Team to back-to-back first place finishes at NACTA, five national titles overall.
“There is a culture here that has the expectation that we will do really well,” Dolliver said. “We have a rich tradition and a history of being a part of these competitions. It is something our students are really motivated about.”
Other coaches of UWRF teams participating in national competitions concurred, saying their students are extremely hard working and diligent about learning as much as they can from those events. Students strive to perform well in the national competitions, and that dedication is directly tied to their performance in the classroom, according to Veronica Justen who coaches the Crop Judging Team and is an associate professor of crop science.
“Every year we keep striving to make our class a little more challenging so that students are better prepared for the competitions,” Justen said. “The students do extra practice because they really want to do well. It's really fun to see how excited they get about the competition.”
Justen’s Crop Judging Team includes Dresden Lambert, a senior agricultural business major from Fountain City; and crop and soil science majors Jace Heiman, a junior from Kewaunee; Simon Kluzak, a senior from Taylors Falls, Minn.; Cheyenne Burgess, a junior from Shullsburg; Alexandria Broderick, a senior from Pound; Jordan Hellenbrand, a junior from Sun Prairie; and Jack Wolter, a senior from Waconia, Minn.
‘A surreal feeling’
Students who have competed in the national events said preparing for those competitions energizes them to work harder in class. Competing at the national level requires increased rigor, they said, and those competitions require critical thinking and problem-solving skills in real-world situations.
Grace Haase, a junior dairy science major from Somerset, said she and her teammates competing in the Dairy Challenge used knowledge they had acquired in their classes, combined with discussions with industry professionals and their personal experiences, to meet the competition’s goal of making a farm more efficient and profitable. Their coach, UWRF Dairy Science Professor Sylvia Kehoe, had prepared them well for the challenges that arose during the competition, Haase said.
The UWRF Dairy Challenge Team was competing against six other schools from around the nation, including favorite and perennial power California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. When team members heard judges announce that university had placed second, their spirits dropped.
Then the judge announced the winner: UWRF.
“It was a surreal feeling when we won,” said Dairy Challenge Team member Ben Stone, a senior dairy science major from Ripon. “We were going against a team who had a long history of winning the competition … We knew we had done a good job, but it wasn't confirmed until they announced us as the winners.”
Other members of the Dairy Challenge Team include Alison Wagner, a senior dairy science major from Cedarburg; and Haley Kirchoff, a senior agricultural business major from Hutchinson, Minn.
The UWRF Soil Judging Team won its competition as well but had to overcome challenges to do so. The competition pits in which students judged soils were unlike the pits where they had practiced, making an already difficult competition even tougher.
The team worked together, relying on each other’s skills, to win the team event. In addition, team members placed high in the individual event. Megan Culpitt, a sophomore crop and soil science major from Norwalk, took first place; Savannah Lynch, a senior environmental science major from Green Bay, placed second; and Seth Lokensgard, a senior crop and soil science major from St. Peter, Minn., placed fifth.
“The difficulty of the competition this year made winning feel that much more special,” Culpitt said.
Other soil judging team members include Dagan Lance, a junior crop and soil science major from Mukwonago; Ben Foust, a senior agricultural business major from Fountain City; Linus Chaple, a senior crop and soil science major from St. Paul; and Elliot Connelly, a junior environmental science major from Rockford, Minn.
Buwalda was joined by Lambert, Wolter and Kluzak on the Knowledge Bowl Team. The group answered questions about a range of agriculture-related topics “and probably had the most fun of any team there,” Buwalda said.
The competitions are important in part, team members and coaches said, because they put into practice what students have learned in the classroom. UWRF teams continued high placings in national contests are a testament to the quality education they receive.
UWRF’s high rankings at national competitions “shows that we have a strong program, and strong supporting areas as well,” Kehoe said. “It’s not only our strong ag program, but the plant sciences, communications and other areas of study that our students get. It all leads to a very well-rounded student that we are able to get out into the workforce.”
Dolliver agreed. She and Kehoe credit UWRF’s commitment to providing students with out-of-classroom experiences that emphasize hands-on learning and critical thinking, skills that are required at the national competitions and in workplaces. While some universities are decreasing those opportunities because of budget concerns, CAFES and UWRF continue to make them a priority, they said.
“As a campus and surely at (CAFES), we are highly committed to these hands-on opportunities for our students,” Dolliver said, noting her students learn skills at the NACTA competition and other events that they can’t get in a classroom setting.
In fact, Dolliver said how she teaches her students, and what she is able to teach them, is positively influenced by the national competitions. In addition to boosting academic achievement, those competitions also lead to valuable networking opportunities for participating students.
Stone, a member of the Dairy Challenge Team, experienced networking possibilities firsthand. He exchanged contact information with a dairy company representative at the Dairy Challenge Midwest Regional Qualifying Competition, then met with him again at the national event. Since then they have exchanged email messages and had numerous phone calls, Stone said.
“This competition might have led me to a future job in the dairy industry,” he said.
That is music to Kehoe’s ears. While she appreciates the satisfaction that comes with winning national events, the real value of those competitions is in motivating students to strive to learn, she said.
“Winning this just helps get the word out there that this is a university and a program that has strong students who are capable of doing just as good or better than other schools out there,” Kehoe said.
Photo Inset #1: The UW-River Falls Dairy Challenge Team placed first in the annual North American Intercollegiate Dairy Challenge in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., held March 31 and April 1. Team members are, left to right, Alison Wagner, Grace Haase, Ben Stone, Haley Kirchoff and team coach and dairy science Professor Sylvia Kehoe. UWRF photo.
Photo Inset #2: The UW-River Falls Crop Judging Team examined plants during competition as part of the North American Colleges and Teachers of Agriculture (NACTA) Student Judging Contest in Modesto, Calif., April 12-15. Photo courtesy of Megan Culpitt.
Photo Inset #3: Members of the UW-River Falls Soil Judging Team work in a soil pit in Modesto, Calif., during the North American Colleges and Teachers of Agriculture (NACTA) Student Judging Contest last month. UWRF students placed first in both the team and individual soil judging contests. Photo courtesy of Megan Culpitt.